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Wilhelmina's Gift


In 1993 at the age of 91, with her health and eyesight failing, my maternal grandmother Wilhelmina Cooke Carlson decided to sell her Santa Barbara apartment and move into a senior care home. One day, before leaving her apartment, she gave me a box of letters and mementos along with a small black photo album.

It was very old and worn, and full of photographs and newspaper clippings about my grandfather, R.L. “Doc” Cooke, who had been the superintendent of the leprosy settlement at Kalaupapa on Molokai for 14 years until his death in 1939. I was stunned. She had mentioned Doc from time to time, but she never spoke of their life at the settlement, and had never once mentioned the photo album. I wrapped it carefully in a cloth and put it in a safe place.

The following years would be a time of big transitions in my life, and I didn't really delve into the photo album until I decided to make copies of the photos and clippings and put them into albums for my family for Christmas. Scanning and repairing each photo meant spending hours each day immersed in the people and places of Kalaupapa during the years 1925 through 1939.


There were days when, walking into the kitchen for lunch, I actually felt as though I was stepping out of one time and place and into another. The more familiar I became with these faces and places, the more I wanted to know about them. My grandmother's failing hearing and health made questioning her impossible. My mother and uncle gave me what information they could, but they were just small children during their time at Kalaupapa, and were sent to live on another island when they were still quite young.


I was going to have to rely on outside sources.



I contacted the Department of Health in Hawaii and was able to obtain my grandfather's marriage and death certificates. The marriage certificate listed the groom's name as "Robert Leslie Cooke"; the death certificate also listed him as "Robert Leslie Cooke", but then "Robert" was crossed out, and "Ralph" written in it's place. There are a couple other entries that are listed as "unknown" and then crossed out and revised, dealing with his parents birthplaces and mother's maiden name. Newspaper articles and mementos refer to him alternately as "R.L.Cooke", "Robert Cooke", "Ralph Cooke", "Doc Cooke", and "Superintendent Cooke". An old U.S. Navy medal of his is inscribed "Ralph L. Cook / U.S.S. K-7, August 14, 1916  C.S.C 3234".

I searched online databases for his birth and navy records to no avail - I could locate nothing to give me a clue about his life before he arrived in Hawaii. I know he was married twice before marrying my grandmother, and that he had two daughters by his second wife, but I don't know their names. Things I have heard from our family grapevine: his parents were German and the family name was originally "Koch". His grandmother was full-blooded Delaware Cherokee from Ohio. Since I have been unable to locate any Ohio or Kentucky census records with my grandfather or his parents listed on them, I can't verify any of that as fact.

One small newspaper article in my grandmother's photo album reports that a brush supposedly inscribed "R.L.Cooke USS F-4" was found washed up on shore. A newspaper article described the finding of the brush and erroneously reported that "Chief Electrician Cooke was lost when the F-4 foundered during diving operations off Honolulu". All 21 crew members perished. Doc's submarine was actually the USS K-7 (SS-38)...perhaps there was some wear to the brush and the K-7 was mistaken for an F-4.

I bought all the books I could find about the history of Kalaupapa, hoping to discover something about Doc, but he is mentioned only briefly in two books that I found: "Home Country" by the beloved American war correspondent Ernie Pyle (see “Home Country” section) and in a short passage by Olivia Robello Breitha in her book "Olivia - My Life of Exile in Kalaupapa". I was frustrated by the lack of any other information about him.

In the box of mementos I came across some letters to my grandmother from Anwei Skinsnes Law, founder of the Hansen's disease organization IDEA (International Association for Integration, Dignity and Economic Advancement) and author of numerous books, articles, and a movie about leprosy. She had corresponded with my grandmother for years, and even interviewed her about her days at Kalaupapa. I tracked Anwei down in 1996, and she offered to send me transcripts of her interviews with my grandmother. However, before I could get the transcripts from her, we somehow lost touch and I was unable to get in touch with her again.

Then, in 1997 my husband and I vacationed on the island of Maui, which is right next to the island of Molokai. It was my first time in Hawaii, and besides falling in love with the natural beauty of the land and the people, I felt an incredible sense of heritage. When I told my mother I was going to Hawaii, she told me that she would like to see Kalaupapa once more before she died. I took the photo album with me and tried making some contacts at Kalaupapa, hoping to find someone who might have known my family when they were there. I had no luck -"The loneliest place in the world" is not an easy place to network.

What happened then...


A Message In A Bottle

Website creation on August 29, 2002

My mother’s eyesight is failing; she inherited my grandmother’s Macular Degeneration and has lost the sight in her left eye this year. She has said that her dearest wish is to see her childhood home at Kalaupapa once more, and so my husband and I are traveling with my parents to Molokai in January. I have created this website with what information I have, to see if I can make some contacts on Molokai. My hope is that this website, like a message in a bottle, will float through the ethernet to someone who will be able to help fill in some of the gaps for me.

There are so many things I want to see: St. Philomena Church at Kalawao, where Brother Dutton was laid to rest next to Father Damien and where my grandfather oversaw the exhumation and return to Belgium of Father Damien’s remains; the sidewalk where my mother and uncle pressed their little feet into cement for posterity; and the place Ernie Pyle mentions in Home Country, where my toddler mother crawled between the legs of a corralled horse while the Hansen's patients looked on in helpless terror.


A Reply

Website update on December 3, 2002

Today I received an e-mail from a woman named Valerie Monson. She is a reporter for the Maui News, and she came upon this website on the internet while doing research. She has written about Kalaupapa for 14 years, traveled to Belgium for Father Damien events, and to other countries for conferences regarding the rights of people afflicted with Leprosy. She asked if she might interview my mother and me when we are in Hawaii - she is working on a project about people who have discovered family ties in Kalaupapa.....we have agreed.



Making Arrangements

Website update on  January 15, 2003

Valerie has helped me with transporation information and has arranged for us to stay in the Kalaupapa Visitor's Quarters for two nights! You can only stay in the Visitor's Quarters if you know someone at Kalaupapa who will sponsor you. Our sponsor is a friend of Valerie's: Father Joseph Hendriks, the priest of St. Francis Church. We will be taking the Father Damien Tour, and Valerie is making all kinds of arrangements for us once we are there. She has been an answer to a prayer. With her help, I know this trip is going to be everything I could possibly hope for. 


A Miraculous Journey

Final website update on ~ July 22, 2003

I write this today, exactly 116 years after my grandfather was born. It has taken some time, but the story of our journey to Kalaupapa is finally finished. It was a once in a lifetime adventure and yes, better than I ever could have imagined. To read about our travels and see pictures, go to the "The Footprint Girl" pages.

When I originally created this introductory page almost a year ago, I wrote: "My hope is that this website, like a message in a bottle, will float through the ethernet to someone who will be able to help fill in some of the gaps for me." Miraculously, that happened sooner, and better than I ever could have expected.

Now my hope is that you will take a step back in time and come to know my grandfather during his years at Kalaupapa. This is his story ~ a story that waited patiently for more than half a century in a small, black photo album.

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